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‘Multirole’ parenting increases depression, especially for stepfathers

Parenting and stress often go together, and stepfathers who fill multiple roles are among the most affected, according to a study by Brigham Young University and Princeton researchers.

Data from more than 6,000 nationally representative parents showed the more roles a person fills — biological parent, stepparent, noncustodial parent, often all at once — the greater the likelihood of depression.

While that was true for both genders, it particularly impacted multirole stepdads, according to the study by Kevin Shafer, a professor of social work at Brigham Young University and Garrett T. Pace, a research specialist at Princeton’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing.

Their findings were published Thursday in the journal Social Work.

Stepfamilies are common. According to data gathered by Smart Step Families, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, 4 in 10 American families are headed by “stepcouples,” meaning at least one partner had a previous relationship that produced a child. About one-third of American children will live with a stepparent before they turn 18, and half will have a stepparent at some point in their lives.

“There have been substantial changes in family structure over recent decades — more divorce, cohabitation, remarriages — so families are just more complex than they were several decades ago,” said Pace. “Multiple roles tend to be associated with more depressive symptoms.”

The trifecta

Stepparents frequently hold three roles, including parent to biological children who may not live with them; stepparent to a new spouse’s children, regardless of where they live; and possibly biological parent to a child born into the blended family they have forged. The researchers refer to this as “yours, mine and ours” families.

Parents handling all three roles were 57 percent more apt to be depressed than those who had a single parental role.

“There are norms that govern parenting, but there aren’t norms for being a stepparent,” Shafer said. “Am I supposed to be an actual parent, a friend, or something like a cool uncle?”

Ex-spouses can also add to the complexity and stress of a newly minted family, said David Simonsen, a marriage and family therapist in the Seattle area, who was not involved in the study. He suggested the more engaged a father is in the blended family, the more likely he might be to feel a high level of stress.

“That’s true of stepparents in general,” said Simonsen.

He listed some of the challenges stepparents might face: “They’re making sure that everyone has equal access to them, making sure there are consistent rules all around, being available to kids that aren’t currently living in the same home, dealing with problems in the other home.”

Shafer and Pace describe a circular effect of parenting that is difficult, that creates stress, that increases depression, that makes it more difficult to be a parent: “What we’re hoping is that mental health professionals will increase screening for depression among parents and ask about parenting roles,” Pace said.

Help is available for parents who struggle with their various roles, but many of them don’t seek it, he said.

Impact on children

Depression is even more likely for stepfathers who also have biological children who do not live with them. It is a stress, Shafer said, that arises because the father wants to do a good job, and it’s a complex situation that also may include guilt about not being as present for those children who live elsewhere.

As stressful as multirole parenting is, it’s not just the parents’ problem, either, the researchers and Simonsen agree. The children are very impacted by what happens to their parents and within their families.

“In stepfamilies in general, I think kids are usually the losers,” said Simonsen. “I know that’s a provocative statement. I think it’s because parents tend to value themselves and their own lives and happiness over their kids’ lives.”

The data for the study came from a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The researchers controlled for basic demographics and factors that would indicate depression not related to parenting, since they were interested specifically in parenting and depression.

Among study limitations, the researchers said they only measured depression at two points, between ages 27 and 37 and again at age 40 or 50.Shafer said he hopes the study will encourage social workers and health clinicians to ask the right questions about family structure and context so they can help people who face challenges that can create stress and mental health problems. He also noted that men are less likely than women to seek the mental health assistance they need.

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